Book Review: From Housewife to Heretic by Sonia Johnson

Four decades later and Sonia Johnson’s memoir about her feminist awakening, support of the ERA, and excommunication are still very familiar and relevant.

This book has been on my shelf for a few years now. I thought it might open a wound of frustration for me if I read it so I kept putting it off, all while the book spine faded more in the sunlight. I took the plunge into reading it earlier this summer and I was not disappointed.

In short summary, this is a memoir of the few years of her involvement with Mormons for ERA, her divorce that happened simultaneously, and her excommunication.

This book was both reassuring and defeating. On one hand, we are dealing with the same attitudes in 2019 as Mormon feminists were in 1979 and that’s frustrating. On the other hand, the words and experiences felt so familiar that it was like listening to a friend recount and commiserate. Oh Sonia- your brother called you to then talk to your husband about why he can’t rein you in? My brother-in-law once asked, “Why hasn’t McKay (my husband) told you to stop blogging!?” Oh, is Senator Hatch befuddled and aggressive towards you and your ideas? He only stepped down from that same position this year, still working against women’s and LGBT rights. Sonia, you shared some of your hate letters, from “good” Mormon people threatening to harm or kill you. Let us open up our Twitter DMs and we’ll see the same.

I am very impressed by her memory- and having written this just a year or so after the excommunication, it was fresh in her mind. I’m glad she wrote it then and didn’t wait to long- I think time would have affected her spin on it. She was all in the Church and it worked for her, until it didn’t. It’s ironic that the reason that she, of all her Mormon feminist friends, was the one to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the ERA because she was the one who was a good Mormon stay at home mother and had the time.

I half expected to find her extreme- that was the impression I was given my whole life- but as I read, every action she took followed easily from the one before and nothing seemed out of place at all. Preparing for her remarks before the Senate, she fasted and prayed and worked out her words with the Spirit, just as I would have. Her efforts to make sure her disciplinary meetings/councils were civil and the people supporting her were true supports were right on with how I’ve experienced supporting others.

The writing was easy to read and I felt that if she were blogging today, each page of that book could be a blog post you’d find in the Bloggernacle.

The Relief Society, which began with a glorious voice of what women could be, has gradually been co-opted by the Brethren as a tool to keep women in their place. As Marilyn Warenski put it in Patriarchs and Politics, the Relief Society has become the “sisterhood of the brotherhood.” The women who head it and the other auxiliaries of the church today are titular heads only, essentially without influence or power.

Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 263

This next quote on her relationship with her mother could be found in any numerous Facebook groups.

She could not understand that one can have a relationship directly with God without the leaders of the church as intermediaries. She could not understand that when the church leaders are angry, God is not necessarily so.

Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 316

And this feeling, when you feel that God has asked you to do something hard, and will help you.

When I rose from my knees that afternoon, I was not afraid anymore. The dread and recurring panic were gone, and I have never felt them since. I went directly to my desk and wrote the final paragraph: “We [Mormons for ERA] believe that what our early sisters would have wanted, what they would be working for if they were here today, what constitutes the whole loaf with which they would be contented, is ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” I did not just believe it; I knew it.

Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic, pg 128

From Housewife to Heretic is a very important book for Mormon feminist even today. If you have a chance to get a copy, read it.

TopHat

TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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6 Responses

  1. Allemande Left says:

    I shared your blog post w a friend and this was her reply, shared w permission.

    “I wept when she was excommunicated. I felt that none of us were safe in speaking out. I did read her book and appreciate the reminder of what she advocated for. I did vote for the ERA.”

  2. Lily May says:

    Thank you for reading and reviewing this book. It should not be lost to any Mormon woman who cares about Mormon women.

    I grew up in the 70’s and watched Sonia Johnson’s activities with the eyes of a child in a very orthodox home. My mother “spoke” and advocated for strong women, as long as they did not bring the church into a negative light. I was taught to distrust someone like Sonia, no matter her message.

    I remember feeling that something was not right, but had no means to articulate what I instinctively knew.

    So, when I read Sonia’s account in the 90’s, as an adult, I cried all the way through it. My heart broke for her and for the church she left behind, and all the little girls like me in it, who would grow into obedient women, little changed from generations preceding them.

  3. Heather says:

    Thank you so much. Growing up in the 70s she was a bogey man (along with Bella Abzug), the ultimate example of what not to be. I want to read more now!

  4. Thanks for the great review! It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  5. Chiaroscuro says:

    thanks for the reminder. i’ve been meaning to read this. wonder where i can find it?

  6. Bro. Jones says:

    I read this in college 20 years ago, when I was much more orthodox than I am now. I expected to read about Sonia’s descent into apostasy and gleefully dismiss her–but instead found that I agreed with everything she wrote. I was deeply saddened by the book and by how leadership treated her. Definitely was part of my developing feminism.

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